Can anybody fix the Oregon Symphony?

It will take more than an endorsement from Portland's reigning pop music star, Thomas Lauderdale of Pink Martini. The orchestra lost its charismatic conductor and now is losing audience and supporters, even as it's playing better than ever.
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Thomas Lauderdale of Pink Martini, shown here on tour in France. (

It will take more than an endorsement from Portland's reigning pop music star, Thomas Lauderdale of Pink Martini. The orchestra lost its charismatic conductor and now is losing audience and supporters, even as it's playing better than ever.

Thomas Lauderdale skipped onto the Schnitzer Concert Hall stage to thunderous applause. It was opening night of the Oregon Symphony's new season. Lauderdale - Portland band Pink Martini's sassy spike-haired leader - trotted out, flashed a big grin, and gushed breathlessly about the Symphony's season ahead. The audience roared its approval. Lauderdale disappeared into the wings. Conductor Carlos Kalmar took the podium. But as I listened to the symphony play a respectable if safe season-opening concert, I wondered what Lauderdale's enthusiastic endorsement of the symphony really meant. Why was this Portland pop star, the city's current cultural ambassador to the world, being pimped as a spokesman for our increasingly conservative and debt-saddled flagship orchestra? Lauderdale, to his credit, stayed in his balcony seat for that first concert. At intermission, I watched him drag on a cigarette behind the Schnitz. I've frequently seen Lauderdale mobbed by fans at his Portland appearances. At symphony half-time, throngs of concertgoers squeezed by this most famous of Portland personalities. This night, nobody asked for an autograph. His newly visible participation seems shrewdly designed to reposition the Symphony as a cultural institution as hip, as necessary, and as unmistakably Portland as Lauderdale himself. There's one problem, though. The Oregon Symphony is not that institution. Lauderdale's pre-concert endorsement appearance is the kind of desperate and calculated tactic the Oregon Symphony is employing not only to improve box office numbers but, far more worrisome, to call attention away from real artistic, financial, and leadership problems. The Symphony is failing, and not just financially. What's gotten the Oregon Symphony to this precipitous point? For more than 20 years, beloved conductor James DePreist galvanized Portland audiences as music director. DePreist ushered the symphony into a new era, fully professionalizing the orchestra and connecting with the Portland community. His name adorns a star cemented just outside the concert hall, and he casts a long shadow. It is unreasonable to expect DePreist's successor, Carlos Kalmar, to carry the banner in the same way. Kalmar is his own type of person and conductor. He is an energetic conductor who excels in big symphonic staples. But he is also seen as an "outsider" because of his busy international schedule, which means he rarely sets down in Portland for much longer than is required of his engagements here. Few Portlanders would recognize him on the street. After a multi-year search, the symphony installed a new president, experienced Canadian arts manager Elaine Calder, this past summer. In an interview during her first month on the job, Calder called Lauderdale "the heart of Portland's cultural community." She said that if anyone had taken on the mantle of James DePreist, it was Lauderdale. That heady endorsement speaks to the hole in the heart of the Oregon Symphony. Swimming in debt, hemorrhaging audiences and supporters, and lacking any innovative programming ideas, the Oregon Symphony could be at one of the lowest points in recent history. Last fiscal year, the Symphony ended $2 million in the red, on an annual budget of about $14 million. It has stopped recording, as it did frequently during DePreist's tenure (even garnering a Grammy nomination in 2003). Murray Sidlin's much-revered "Nerve Endings" concerts, which framed classical music in dramatic or nontraditional formats and brought in young and diverse audiences, have been abandoned. The Symphony only rarely travels outside its home at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, a hall often maligned for its unfavorable acoustices and uncomfortable seats. The orchestra hasn't appeared outside Oregon in over a decade. Kalmar's commitment to new music is dubious at best. In five years here, he has never really developed a strong profile or connected with the Portland community. Paradoxically, though, under Kalmar's leadership, the Symphony's overall sound has improved dramatically - players, audience members, and critics across the boards agree on this. Symphony musicians seem energized by the fresh faces among the orchestra ranks, many emerging from top conservatories. Jun Iwasaki, the symphony's 25-year-old new concertmaster, shows great promise. Putting aside, then, the cosmetic quick-fix attempts such as commandeering Thomas Lauderdale's star appeal, what else can be done to turn this ship around? One example is the Brooklyn Philharmonic, a group that by the 1990s had lost most of its audience and was struggling to keep itself afloat. Joseph Horowitz, an enterprising music historian and provocateur, turned the orchestra under his leadership as executive director into an "experimental laboratory for a different kind of concert experience." He mixed popular and vernacular genres with the most outré contemporary classical musics, and initiated mini-festivals around relevant historical/musical themes. Robert Spano served as the galvanizing conductor, 1996-2004, attracting a much broader audience. (Spano is known in Seattle for conducting the most recent Wagner Ring for Seattle Opera.) It would be unfair to expect the Oregon Symphony to offer innovative programming ideas and commissioning projects in the way Michael Tilson Thomas has done in San Francisco, or Esa Pekka-Salonen in Los Angeles, or James Levine in Boston. But regional orchestras with budgets much smaller than Oregon's are producing fresh, inventive programs. The South Dakota Symphony regularly programs adventurous new music alongside established classics: a recent concert paired Beethoven's Third Symphony with American composer Lowell Liebermann's Third Piano Concerto, a new work from 2006. The San Antonio Symphony's programs this year include a commissioned world premiere, as well as works from American composers including Charles Ives, John Corigiliano, John Adams, and the young Gabriela Frank. Moreover, Portland is home to several ear-opening new music groups, such as Third Angle, Fear No Music, and the Portland Cello Project, so maybe Portland really is a good city for a more contemporary-tuned audience at the symphony. I'm not sure what Lauderdale knows about classical music, but he could undoubtedly offer some fresh thinking on pops and crossover repertoire. Would it be too much to ask, as well, for some new ideas in the classical series, celebrity endorsement or no? A few weeks after that season-opening concert, an e-mail from Lauderdale and Pink Martini arrived in my inbox. It encouraged Pink Martini fans to check out the Oregon Symphony, and included this bold statement of support: "Under the leadership of conductor Carlos Kalmar, we believe this orchestra is on its way to becoming one of the very best orchestras in the United States." Pleasant thought, but much more will need to be done to make me believe such a claim.


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